Five Biggest Myths About College Admissions

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Notre Dame University, in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 19, 2009

Now that all the college-admissions acceptance and rejection letters have been mailed, students and parents are taking stock of their lot. Some are happy, but a great many more probably feel disappointed. An enormous amount of energy and anxiety is expended in trying to get into college, but the truth is that the admissions process is much more haphazard than people like to think. The good news? In the long run, it's generally less important too. Here are the five biggest myths about this annual angst-a-thon:

Myth No. 1: Getting rejected means you're just not [insert school name] material.

Given the scale of applications these days, getting into selective schools has as much to do with luck as it does with merit. Although admissions officers really do try to give careful consideration to the applications, the sheer numbers are daunting. Harvard, for instance, saw 34,950 applications this year; that means each admissions officer has to comb through hundreds of them in a few short months. Of those, only 2,158 students got in — but most who didn't would do well there too. In other words, most students who apply to Harvard are "Harvard material." Of course, as the nation's most selective school, Harvard is an extreme example, but the same is true at a variety of schools: scarcity rather than pure merit drives the process. There are only so many seats. Bottom line: admissions experts say most applicants are admissible.

Myth No. 2: You're going to earn based on where you learn.

Economic insecurity is understandable, especially these days, and getting a college degree is generally a ticket to a more financially stable life. But where you go to college matters less than you might think. When Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research looked at earnings of college graduates, they found that individual characteristics, like aptitude, mattered more than the school. What may be the most important predictor? The type of schools you applied to, rather than where you got in, because that speaks to your ambition. One big exception: minority students and students from families with less education overall. For these people, elite schools pay a dividend probably because of the social capital they confer. In addition, as colleges have become more competitive, more schools offer semesters abroad and access to coveted internships than in the past. The best advice? Bloom where you're planted. In the long run, it's hard to go wrong by working hard and taking on leadership roles on campus.

Myth No. 3: Affirmative action rigs the process.

These days, other factors tilt the scales more than race-based affirmative action, which the Supreme Court has ruled cannot be an overriding factor for admissions at public universities or used in formulaic ways. State schools, for instance, need to make sure their classes represent all parts of a state. Being an athlete obviously helps. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of schools with strong athletics programs found that their athletes had substantially lower SAT scores than other students. It's not just an issue at Football U, though — a 2004 study by researchers at Princeton University found that athletes got a preference even at the most elite colleges in the country. Having a family member who attended the school you want to go to gives you a leg up as well — think of it as affirmative action for the privileged. Bottom line: don't get hung up on grievances, because you have no way of knowing why an admissions decision was made.

Myth No. 4: The wait list never moves.

There is a feeling that being put on a waiting list is the same as not getting in. In fact, these lists are more fluid than they used to be. Students now apply to many more schools, and the upside to the greater competition is that more offers of admission won't be accepted. In other words, waiting lists have become a safety net for schools rather than students. Today colleges accept far fewer students than in the past with a clear intention of going to the waiting list, says Erin Meissner, a former college admissions official who is now the director of college counseling at St. Anne's-Belfield's, a private school in Virginia. Colleges want a big yield from their waiting lists, she says, so don't just respond to a waiting-list offer; make sure the school knows just how much you want to attend. If you're wait-listed and comfortable saying you absolutely will attend should you get an offer, then do it, she says. The bad news: by the time colleges get to their waiting lists, financial aid is often used up.

Myth No. 5: Once you choose a school, you're stuck for four years.

When you stop and think about it, a system that encourages 17-to-18-year-olds to make high-stakes life decisions is insane. Thankfully, in addition to changing majors, students can change schools. Admissions counselors suggest that students give their new school a chance rather than start with a mind-set that is focused on transferring, but if it doesn't work out, they can leave. In fact, about 1 in 3 students transfer during their collegiate career, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. While it's slightly harder to get in as a transfer student (on average, 64% of transfers are accepted, while 69% of first-year admissions are), some states have formalized their procedures for transferring among public colleges and universities and from community colleges to flagship state schools. Officials say college grades are the most important factor in transfer admissions, so hopefuls can wipe their high school slate clean and start afresh. Who says there are no second chances?

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.